Salt air slaps her face as she steps off the wooden ship, as if the island is already offended at her presence there. Pulling her fur cloak tighter around her shoulders, Sigga lifts her chin against the wind and continues down the gangplank.
There are not many there to meet them— an older official, his face ruddy under his navy cap, and a small scattering of young men and women to see who’s turned up on the ship this time. Who’s been newly given over to this barren island of criminals.
“Welcome!” the official shouts, as if any of them had a choice in coming. His fingers rest on a rusted knife hanging from his belt.
A woman with a bruised cheek raises her hand to return the greeting, the civility of society not yet beaten out of her by the waves. Sigga heard that the woman was a thief, though she doesn’t look like much of anything now. On the prisoner ship over from her homeland to this rock bared from the ocean, Sigga kept to herself. At sixteen she wasn’t the youngest passenger. Her crimes were not as dangerous as the others’— murder, whoring, assault, and thievery— but the word they branded her at the docks made the others wary of her. Witch.
No matter how they make their money, everyone knows to stay away from witches.
Finally, her feet touch the ground with a thump. The land is frozen solid, the small clumps of dirt as hard as stones. Scuffing the toes of her boot through brittle grass, she reminds herself that she knew this is how it would be. Still, the sensation is strange after so many days on the water.
The official scans their faces as the last person departs the ship. Satisfied, he takes a few steps forward. “Now that you’re here, there are few options open to you. You can join us at our settlement and follow our rules. Give whatever supplies you have to the keeper of the storehouse and we’ll give you a role here. We share all of our resources and we’ll help you stay alive for as long as we’re able.”
Sigga’s companions exchange glances and murmurs, but she keeps her mouth locked tight. She’s not going to join some village run by a man, not after what happened last time. After what they did to her.
As he continues, the official’s voice darkens and he leans towards them. “If you’re thinking that you’re fresh and strong, that you can come in here and take what you wish, know that you are wrong. We will tear your flesh from the bone and use your body to survive the winter.”
A shiver runs down Sigga’s spine, but she refuses to let it show.
The official watches his words sink in, a wicked smile curling across his face. “If that doesn’t work for you, you can try your luck further inland or at the cliffs. Know that there’s more danger out there than there is in here— people who choose to live alone on this island can’t be trusted.” He pauses. “They tend to go a little mad.”
With that, his welcome speech is completed. He turns around on his heel, knife flashing in the sunlight, and heads back to the cluster of thatched huts that make up the settlement on this isolated island. Everyone else hurries to join him; Sigga watches them go. It’s probably their best chance for survival.
Alone, she scans the horizon and the hills before she makes her decision. To the north. The settlement is circled by a crude wooden fence, and Sigga will have to go around it to get to where she wants. Tucking her hands against her ribs to keep them warm, she leaves the shore behind her.
The island has no name, or that isn’t correct— the island has too many names to be known by just one. Prisoner’s Rock. Isle of Exiles. Land of Ice and Stone. Dragon Back. Sigga has read about it under all of its names.
A place where people get sent to be forgotten.
Exertion makes her face hot, even as her nose freezes. The settlement is far behind her now and the ship disappeared into the horizon, but she’s planned for this. Sigga has everything she needs, tucked beneath her clothes and in the small woolen bag that they allowed her. She’s heading north, as far north as she can go.
“Ho there!” The voice comes sudden from the hills, and she glances up to find a boy her age standing on the greening moss. He’s from the island, his black hair long and shaggy around his chin. When she doesn’t stop, he lopes down the hill to catch her.
“You!” he says again when he reaches her. “You’re new. You’ll want to turn around now. If you go out there, you’ll die.”
She doesn’t bother slowing her pace; she has to cover as much ground as she can before night falls. “Isn’t that the point of this island?”
He lets out a sigh, but the corner of his mouth turns up. “If you go out there, you’ll die quicker.”
Checking the sun to make sure she’s still headed due north, her boot heels knife against the harsh ground. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
He runs a hand through his tangled hair, keeping even with her. “There’s always someone on every boat who thinks they can survive on their own.”
“And you come to look out for them?” She shouldn’t be interacting with him, but there’s a gleam in his brown eyes that pulls her focus. “How charitable.”
Now he laughs outright. “Who are you and why were you sent here?”
“Sigga,” she tells him. As for the rest? Anger no longer burns in her chest to keep her warm; over the days spent in her village’s dirty jail and the bowels of the ship, it compressed, like snow tamped down into a frozen ball of ice. She carries it now like a weapon. “I’m here for the same reason that everyone else is. I made the wrong man angry.”
Pleased with her answer, the boy introduces himself with a short bow. “I’m Hem.”
Her foot falters, skittering over black rock. “Like the saga.”
“Yes. Like Hem and his axe of light.” The boy smiles ruefully, peeking over at her from underneath long lashes. “Except he never stabbed anyone.”
She knows all of the sagas. After, they said she’d read too many forbidden tales, but she didn’t— she’d read adventurer’s journals, the bound letters of men and women who came before her, and the sagas in every interpretation. This doesn’t scare her.
Raising an eyebrow, she responds to the boy. “That’s a story I’ll have to hear.”
His face brightens in the afternoon sun, and she wonders how long he’s been trapped here. “Are you planning to come back then?”
“Yes.” This is one thing she’s certain about. This island will not kill her.
“Then I’ll wait for you,” he promises. Pausing for a moment, he rushes out the remaining words. “Stay away from the valley— it seems like a good place to avoid the wind, but there are dangerous men who keep their camp there.”
“Thank you,” she says, and she means it. He stops walking with her after that, but she feels him watching her back until the distance takes even that away.
When night comes, the temperature drops like a stone tossed in a well.
Remembering the survival stories that she’s read, she huddles behind a mound of land and stacks rocks to block out the wind. She curls up, pulling her cloak tight around her body. Boots stuffed with rabbit fur, her toes are the only part of her that aren’t cold. Her feet sweated on the boat, but it was all worth it for this small bit of warmth.
Laying down, her mind doesn’t quiet. There is a low circle of moonlight above her, and she thinks of the stories that brought her here. Not the good ones, but the others.
How easy it was for a man to whisper about seeing her in that same moonlight, dressed in nothing but her long brown hair. That those books she’d read were full of evil lies of dragons and sprites and blood. Or how she was spotted comforting a crying friend and stealing the tears off of her face for later. (How would she save them? For what? Such nonsense.) The word ‘witch’ built around them like a fire being stoked. More powerful, more believed, with every uttering.
He took her away from her friends, ruined her reputation with the village, caused her own family to cast her out of home when they started to believe the stories—all to protect the small powers that he had gathered while leading the village. How fragile his pride.
Forcing her eyes closed, Sigga tells herself to sleep. Her hands curl tightly against her stomach for warmth, but the thoughts won’t quiet, not when she’s so close.
It started so simply, before. The leader of the village decided to build the new village road right by the inn he owned, even though the route didn’t make sense. He issued a new tax against those with more than five horses, so high that soon no one had more horses than him, just the same. He pardoned his friends and found accusations against their enemies. His purse grew with coin that never should have belonged to him. No one else could see it, until she started to tell them.
It was exactly as she said to Hem: Her words made the wrong man angry, and now here she is.
The next morning dawns still and clear, the sky unbearably blue above her. As directed by the sun, she keeps walking north across the endless land.
Green lichen is frozen underfoot, crackling like a fist with every step. When she’s been walking for a few hours, she tugs at the sun-warmed moss and places it in her bag for later, insulation when she sleeps. The nights won’t get any kinder, she knows; the journals she’s read say it only gets worse.
Wind sears her like hellfire as the landscape opens up. A black rock tower rises in the distance, its cap ringed in fog, but her steps don’t seem to take her any closer. Her fingers freeze despite their wraps; her ears burn underneath her cloak’s furred hood. She doesn’t dare dig into the store of food she hoarded and hid during the ship ride over yet, and her stomach howls with the wind.
It’s early afternoon when she comes to the valley that Hem mentioned, a thread carved out of the land and walled in black rocks. There’s a hint of a river at the bottom and her body is so tempted to climb down, to walk without the scream of the wind in her ears.
Hem’s words echo in her mind. There are wild men down there. It’s hard to make herself bow her head against the wind and leave it behind, but she does it. She’ll need to be on alert for those who camp there. No weapons are allowed on the ship, no knives tucked down tunics or sewn into hems. She has nothing but her wits and the rocks around her to defend herself, and her wits haven’t served her so well lately.
Sigga gives the valley a wide berth, adding unknown time to her journey. As she walks, a far-off screech makes her heart stop. The men? An animal?
Her own foolish pulse?
Harsh air stings her lungs as her breath comes quicker. Another sound follows her, a dark laugh torn from an angry throat. She’s not imagining it; those men are coming.
Running now, she crests a low hill and pauses. A wide river cuts in from the surrounding sea, both ends invisible in the distance. Ice glazes the surface but she can’t tell how thick it is. If it will hold her. There’s no other way for her to go.
Sliding down to the river’s edge, she sets her boot on the ice. A crack echoes from nearby and she makes a decision: cold is better than wet. She goes to her knees, then lower to spread out her weight, and pushes herself across the surface of the river. Ice crystals snag against her skin.
The river groans around her, hungry and alive. She hears it when something joins her on the ice, but she keeps her eyes forward. A numbness sneaks past her dress despite the layers. When she reaches the far side, she digs her fingernails into the dirt to scramble up the bank. There’s a flash of black behind her but she doesn’t turn around to see them; she keeps running north.
If she was looking for hospitable land, she would have turned back long ago. Would have crawled back to the settlement and begged them to take her in.
But she isn’t. She’s looking for something more.
The next morning, the snow comes.
When she wakes, a light dusting covers the ground and she can see animal markings around the remains of her campfire. Rabbits or fox? It’s too blurred for her to tell how dangerous.
Her fingers crack like sticks when she forces her grip tighter around her bag. Nothing she can do but continue, she tells herself, although the words don’t feel as strong as they did before.
Leaving her camp behind, Sigga continues north. Her mother would tell her to wrap her sore feet with linens, to staunch the blood before it wrecks her boots. Half-blinded by the snow and her own sour thoughts, Sigga doesn’t see the rock until she stumbles over it.
Flat on the ground, she tips her chin to glare and blanches at what she sees. It’s not a rock that she’s tripped over, but a body frozen in ice, half-buried under stones and peat. The body’s arm is clearly broken; they’d never make it further like that. Its face is a handbreadth from hers. Close like…
In a moment, she’s here and also there, on her last free day in the village. When her family turned her out, the villagers came for her, massing in the streets like a flood. They knew she was nothing. Alone.
She fled to the only place she knew they wouldn’t go, the small dark space carved out beneath the village cold house. It was some time before her eyes adjusted to the blackness, before she realized what was next to her. A body, dead only a few days. She hadn’t known. They would keep it until spring thawed the ground for burial; maybe Sigga’s body would join it. No, she knew better, witches didn’t get buried, they got burned. Or hung or cleansed, lungs full of lake water. Cheek pressed against the packed dirt floor, she listened to the mob outside calling for her neck while staring into the corpse’s open eyes.
The shivers she had then flood her body now.
No other way to save herself, she couldn’t leave, couldn’t move until she wanted to die too, until perhaps she did. All her fear and pain bled into the frozen ground, and that cold climbed up into her instead. When she finally slid away from the corpse, she knew what she wanted to do.
She went out into her village and let them take her away.
Climbing steadily to her feet, she strips this new body of their cloak, whispering prayers all the while. Were they a murderer? A rapist? Did they deserve their death on this island? Does anyone?
That night when she builds the fire, she burns it for hours, until her questions cease to matter. Something has to be worth this.
Time loses all sense after that. There are hours where she doesn’t think of anything but the white circle of the sun guiding her north and the hard rock of anger in her chest, heavy as her straining heart. Cuts and bruises appear on her skin. Cold burrows into her lungs.
Sigga passes a frozen waterfall, hanging from the gray cliffs like the folds of a dress. She looks at it for too long and she slips, falling on hard ice underneath the cover of snow. Pain spikes up her body. Catching her breath, she brushes away the snow to see the frozen lake underneath her. It’s dark and murky in the water, but she sees a round shape bumping up against the crust of ice. Almost like an egg. It’s glowing gently beneath the surface. This is a sign.
The northern coast must be close.
Forcing her disjointed body up and into movement, she runs. Air stings her face and she can taste salt again for the first time since she left the coast. She runs until she sees a horizon in the distance, until she’s at the gray rocks, a jagged cliff not too high above the ocean. Reaching the edge, she peers over to the water below. There they are.
The ice dragons.
Buried under the icy waves, their tails rip through the water as they swim. Ice crystals crust their eyelids like salt from the ocean when they surface, their heads almost lupine. Their scales gleam blue and green and silver, edged in light and sharp as knives. Wonder and rage dance through her chest.
There are many ways to punish a girl. Sigga let it be known that this frozen island was her biggest fear, whispered like a secret through the village, and a man like that couldn’t resist. Arrogant, condescending, he was all of it when he proclaimed her sentence: she was going to Prisoner’s Rock. Isle of Exiles. Land of Ice and Stone.
Sigga read about the rumors of the dragons, the ones that people didn’t believe in. Their breeding ground lies at the northernmost point of an abandoned island. Looking out at the water, a smile breaks over her face for the first time in a while.
He wanted a witch, so she’ll give him one. She’ll see him burn on the pyre he built for her.